Argued: September 18, 2019
Circuit Court-Laconia Family Division
Law Offices, PLLC, of Kennebunk, Maine (Albert Hansen on the
brief and orally), for the petitioner.
& Reno, P.A., of Concord (Jeremy D. Eggleton on the brief
and orally), for the respondents.
petitioner appeals an order of the Circuit Court
(Carroll, Referee, approved by Garner, J.)
denying her petition to modify or terminate the guardianship
of the respondents over her minor biological daughter, K.B.
The guardianship was granted by a court of the State of
Connecticut in 2010. Because we conclude that the circuit
court did not have jurisdiction over this petition to modify
another state's child-custody determination, see
RSA 458-A:14 (2018), we vacate and remand with instructions
to dismiss the petition.
record supports the following relevant facts. The petitioner
gave birth to K.B. in Connecticut in September 2007. The
State of Connecticut removed K.B. from the petitioner's
care shortly thereafter. K.B. has resided with the
respondents, respectively, her paternal grandmother and step-
grandfather, since 2008. The respondents have been K.B.'s
guardians since 2010. The respondents and K.B. lived in New
Hampshire from 2008 until the summer of 2018, when they moved
to Maine. The petitioner also lives in Maine. According to
the circuit court's order, the whereabouts of K.B.'s
biological father, who is not a party to this action, are
"not known." The petitioner alleged that K.B.'s
father still lives in Connecticut, though neither the
petitioner nor the respondents have had any contact with him
respondents' guardianship over K.B. was originally
granted by an order of the Superior Court of Connecticut
dated April 13, 2010. In that order, the Connecticut court,
in addition to granting the guardianship, stated the
following: "court finds the child a resident of New
Hampshire, in 6 months, NH would be the proper jurisdiction
for reinstatement of parental guardianship."
(Capitalization omitted.) In an order dated July 8, 2010,
however, that same court vacated its April order and entered
a new order granting the respondents a guardianship over K.B.
The July order does not contain any language regarding the
child's residence in New Hampshire or whether New
Hampshire would be the proper jurisdiction for modification
of the guardianship.
instant petition was filed in the circuit court in 2017. It
sought to modify or terminate the respondents'
guardianship over K.B. on the ground that "substitution
or supplementation of parental care . . . is no longer
necessary." The respondents filed an answer, as well as
a motion to dismiss. After a hearing, the court denied the
petition, concluding that, under Connecticut law, the
respondents' guardianship was permanent and therefore not
subject to modification. The petitioner subsequently filed a
motion for reconsideration, which the court denied, and this
this appeal involves a petition to modify or terminate
another state's child-custody determination, we must
first determine whether the circuit court had subject matter
jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and
Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). See In re G. B., 167 N.H.
99, 102 (2014) ("The UCCJEA governs when a court of this
state has jurisdiction to make or modify a child custody
determination."); see also Unif. Child Custody
Jurisdiction & Enforcement Act § 201, cmt., 9-IA
U.L.A. 673 (1999) (noting that "jurisdiction to make a
child custody determination is subject matter
jurisdiction"). Subject matter jurisdiction is
jurisdiction over the nature of the case and the type of
relief sought. Appeal of Cole, 171 N.H. 403, 408
(2018). A court lacks power to hear or determine a case
concerning subject matter over which it has no jurisdiction.
Id. A party may challenge subject matter
jurisdiction at any time during the proceeding, including on
appeal, and may not waive subject matter jurisdiction.
Id. The court may also raise subject matter
jurisdiction sua sponte. State v. Demesmin,
159 N.H. 595, 597 (2010). The scope of a court's
jurisdiction pursuant to a statute, such as the UCCJEA,
presents a question of law. See Cole, 171 N.H. at
resolve this jurisdictional issue, we must interpret the
UCCJEA as it has been enacted in New Hampshire. We rely upon
our ordinary rules of statutory construction in doing so.
See In the Matter of Ball & Ball, 168 N.H. 133,
137 (2015). Under those rules, we are the final arbiter of
the legislature's intent as expressed in the words of the
statute considered as a whole. Id. We first look to
the language of the statute itself, and, if possible,
construe that language according to its plain and ordinary
meaning. Id. Where a statute defines a particular
word or phrase, however, that definition will govern. See
EEOC v. Fred Fuller Oil Co., 168 N.H. 606, 613 (2016).
We construe all parts of a statute together to effectuate its
overall purpose and to avoid an absurd or unjust result.
Ball, 168 N.H. at 137.
addition to our ordinary rules of statutory construction, we
may consider the official comments to the UCCJEA. See In
the Matter of Scott & Pierce, 160 N.H. 354, 359
(2010). The consideration of official comments is sensible
because, as we have previously explained, "'the
intention of the drafters of a uniform act becomes the
legislative intent upon enactment.'" Ball,
168 N.H. at 137 (quoting Hennepin County v. Hill,
777 N.W.2d 252, 256 (Minn.Ct.App. 2010)). We may also
consider the interpretation of the UCCJEA by other
jurisdictions. See id. Opinions from courts in other
jurisdictions are relevant "'because uniform laws
should be interpreted to effect their general purpose to make
uniform the laws of those states that enact them.'"
Id. at 137-38 (quoting Hill, 777 N.W.2d at
257); accord In the Matter of McAndrews &
Woodson, 171 N.H. 214, 220 (2018).
UCCJEA establishes the criteria for deciding which
state's courts have subject matter jurisdiction to make a
child custody decision involving interstate custody
disputes." Harshberger v. Harshberger, 724
N.W.2d 148, 153 (N.D. 2006). It has been adopted in all fifty
states. Monica Hof Wallace, A Primer on Child Custody in
Louisiana, 65 Loy. L. Rev. 1, 158 (2019). New Hampshire
adopted the UCCJEA in 2009. McAndrews, 171 N.H. at
218; see RSA ch. 458-A (2018). The UCCJEA replaced
the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA), which New
Hampshire had adopted in 1979. In the Matter of Yaman
& Yaman, 167 N.H. 82, 87 (2014).
UCCJEA was promulgated, in part, to resolve issues resulting
from decades of conflicting court decisions interpreting and
applying the UCCJA. McAndrews, 171 N.H. at 218.
"The UCCJA turned out to have exploitable loopholes
allowing for concurrent jurisdiction in more than one state,
which encouraged jurisdictional competition . . . and forum
shopping." David Carl Minneman, Annotation,
Construction and Operation of Uniform Child Custody
Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, 100 A.L.R.5th 1, 1
(2002). The UCCJEA addressed these problems, in part, by
making clear that "[t]he continuing jurisdiction of the
original decree State is exclusive." Unif. Child Custody
Jurisdiction & Enforcement Act § 202, cmt., 9-IA
U.L.A. 674; see id. § 202(a), 9-IA U.L.A. 155
(Supp. 2017); RSA 458-A:13, I. In addition, the purposes of
the UCCJEA, as described by its promulgating body, the
National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws,
are, inter alia, to "'[a]void
jurisdictional competition and conflict with courts of other
States in matters of child custody, '" to
"'[d]iscourage the use of the interstate system for